California Beats France in Green Race
Rick Woodbury, 54, inventor and designer of the "Tango," sits behind the wheel of the electric two-person Tango car on the streets of Spokane, Wash., Aug. 25, 2003. Just 39 inches wide and 8 1/2-feet long, the Tango is classified as an ultra-narrow vehicle; meaning two can fit side-by-side in the same freeway lane, with room to spare.
Credit: AP Photo/Peter G. Williams

California's embrace of strict environmental laws gave it the edge over also-ran France in a "race" to put the most environmentally friendly cars on the road, a new report claims.

The paths each took to excel at promoting sales of greener vehicles were drastically different, according to the study detailed in the journal Policy Sciences.

California came up with more innovative solutions overall, possibly because the state government approached the issue aggressively, researchers David Calef of the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei and Robert Goble of Clark University in Massachusetts wrote.

Another factor: Americans tend to embrace technological solutions more readily than behavioral change.

Started in 1990

Convinced that existing federal air quality standards were sub-par, California in 1990 adopted stringent state laws requiring that 2 percent of all cars sold by 1998 be zero-emission vehicles (the requirement was, however, relaxed five years later because the government realized this goal would be impossible to reach). The state threatened to slap penalties on car companies that didn’t comply. Californians hotly debated the new law throughout the 90s, and oil companies fought strongly against it, both in public and in courtrooms.

Meanwhile, the French government created laws to encourage its car companies to develop electric vehicles under a treaty that included the state-owned electricity company.

The French laws suggested that 5 percent of newly registered vehicles and 10 percent of public vehicles should be electric starting in 1999. But discussions with car companies were held “behind closed doors,” free of public scrutiny, and the government issued no fines for non-compliance.

Overall, the French were potentially open to the concept of electric cars for several reasons, Calef and Goble noted.

Nuclear power is widely used in France, so dependence on oil—and consequently, negative reactions from oil companies—was much less pronounced there than in the United States. Also, French gasoline taxes are 2.5 times higher than those in the United States, and the French tend to drive shorter distances each day than Americans, making electric vehicles more appealing and practical to drivers.

Innovative alternatives

Despite the fact that France should have perhaps been most excited about developing non-gasoline cars, California was overall more successful. Even though neither France nor California reached its stated goals, American car companies came up with innovative alternatives to electric cars—electric-gasoline hybrid cars and ethanol-gasoline flexible-fuel vehicles—of which there are more than 350,000 on the state’s roads today.

It is likely that differences in American and French attitudes towards technology also came into play, according to Calef and Gobel.

Whereas Americans have a strong faith in technology, the French tend to think of it as relevant only when it serves a national agenda—“when technological achievements blend with political purposes,” according to the authors. Since electric cars weren’t considered politically important for France, there was less of a drive towards developing them, Calef and Goble suggested.

California’s marginally greater success may, therefore, have been driven by America’s pride in innovation and its tendency to look to technology for answers, they said.